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An Interview with IT Team Manager Tom Pirlet

Natalia Vianden Director, Global Channel Programs Published 14 Dec 2022

Meet Tom Pirlet of Belgium’s Citymesh, Extreme’s Hero of the quarter.

Tell us about your recent win with the municipality of Aubange.

A 5G network delivered by Citymesh recently landed the municipality and we won  the prestigious Giga Region Award 2022 in recognition of the innovative, smart city initiatives we helped to deploy. We are very proud that our work contributes to the Giga Region project, which aims to turn Wallonia into a hyper-connected area.

What made this project particularly unique for the Citymesh team?

One of the reasons why Aubange posed a challenge for connectivity was its location. Aubange is in a rural area at the southern tip of Belgium that consists of several village centers. The Giga Region project offers the perfect opportunity for public services, schools, and industrial companies to experiment with the possibilities of 5G. This way they can uncover the incredible potential of this technology.

Citymesh is involved in some major networking projects spanning multiple industries and countries. Which projects  have been the most rewarding and have the biggest real-world impacts?

One of the projects that I have worked on was the roll-out of public Wi-Fi networks under the WiFi4EU brand, done together with Extreme Networks. This initiative of the European Commission promotes free Wi-Fi for citizens and visitors in public spaces. The project attempts to narrow the digital divide for people with a limited budget and where mobile 4G and 5G subscriptions might be unaffordable. A large number of Belgian cities have been awarded WiFi4EU vouchers and if some city decides to make use of it, there’s about an 80% chance that the Wi-Fi network was installed by Citymesh and is running on Extreme equipment. It’s nice to see when you’re strolling around a city in Europe, and if they have cooperated in the project,  WiFi4EU network and connect to it automatically.

5G plays a pivotal role in the Citymesh business. Since you’re highly knowledgeable in both cellular and Wi-Fi technologies, how do you personally see the relationship between the two moving forward, especially with the advent of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E?

In my opinion, 5G and Wi-Fi 6E can definitely coexist and complement each other. They can be used for different use cases and in different environments. Wi-Fi is a great asset indoors, for instance, and is already used in many contexts, including public buildings, factories, warehouses, and schools. 5G is an emerging technology that offers reliable connectivity anywhere and anytime, whether people are on the move or not. A combination of Wi-Fi 6E and 5G can also be useful for redundancy purposes, for example in scenarios where a Wi-Fi service becomes congested.

Although Citymesh became an Extreme Networks partner relatively recently, the speed at which the company’s engineers, including yourself, have acquired knowledge of Extreme solutions is simply remarkable. How does the partnership and Extreme’s product portfolio fit in your company’s broader business strategy?

Extreme Networks fits extremely well within Citymesh’s business. Both companies are flexible and goal-oriented. By combining Extreme’s straightforward hardware and licenses with our vision, we can offer comprehensive solutions to our clients. The engineers, the tech team, and the sales team are a well-oiled machine and have all the necessary knowledge to support us. One Extreme Networks product that plays a very important role in the Citymesh organization is ExtremeCloud IQ, which I use on a regular basis.

As someone skilled both in network engineering and sales, you probably need to see the benefits of technology in the real world first before being convinced it’s right for your customers. From an engineer’s perspective, which Extreme products or solutions do you particularly appreciate?

One of the most important things for engineers is ease of set-up, maintenance, and use. The ExtremeCloud IQ platform is very straightforward and easy to use, while still allowing some very in-depth tweaking, thanks to the classification rules. For an IT engineer, not everything needs to be complicated to use or  set up to be good.

For Citymesh, innovative use cases are not just a buzzword. One particularly interesting solution is the fully automated Safety Drone system. Could you describe the technology behind this impressive solution?

The Safety Drone system provides emergency services personnel with a real-time overview of emergencies like fires or traffic accidents. It is controlled entirely via a 5G network. The drone is operated with a single board computer and its docking station is controlled by a Citymesh Nova Node CPE. We started with an industrial DJI [Da-Jiang Innovations] drone, which has high safety standards and failsafe features. Every potential error in the system before, during, and after a flight has a failsafe linked to it. It’s a very robust drone that can fly in light rain and has a high waterproof rating of IP45. The drone also has a 360-degree collision avoidance system, which means that it can detect obstacles and avoid them. The BVLOS [Beyond Visual Line of Sight] controlling software offers the possibility to implement no-fly zones and geocaging. This ensures that a drone cannot fly over an unwanted zone.

If you ever started a company of your own, what values would it be based upon?

For me, the values would be integrity, fairness, passion, and quality. I believe in an honest and fair business relationship with customers and suppliers.

I understand that you like to travel. What’s your favorite of all the places you’ve visited? And what’s your next dream destination?

Apart from the European mainland, the only exotic trip I ever went on was an express pick-up mission in Hong Kong for Citymesh. However, my favorite place of all the ones I’ve visited is Budapest. The vibe and the setting are just beautiful. On my travel wish list are a few more intercontinental destinations including Canada, Australia, and, in the U.S., New York, Louisiana, California, and Texas.

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